It’s 2017 and no one would dispute that Germany is indeed “Europe’s pre-emininent power.” But on April 6, one hundred years ago America declared war for the explicit purpose of preventing this, though no one was really sure what the war Over There was really all about. So America entered the war, not shortening it but instead prolonging it unnecessarily as untold millions of wives lost their husbands, children lost their fathers, and the men themselves lost limbs and reacted to insanity in the only sane way possible; it was then called shell shock. Today it is PTSD.
It did not have to be. In a new book, War Against War by Michael Kazin, we learn that a majority of Americans, liberal and conservative, urban and rural, tried hard to keep us out of that awful, truly senseless war. We had other better options available at the time.
While historic trends in 1917 appear to have rendered inevitable the war itself and the US entry into it, given the costs versus benefits of that conflict (which never really ended) and the huge price we still pay every day a full century later in places like Syria and the former Mesopotamia, it is a worthy exercise to consider the other options.
What if the US had not gotten in? Could we have done as Pope Benedict XV asked, played the role of brokering a peace through diplomacy? What if an armistice had been delivered prior to American troops pushing Germany back? What if the belligerents had been left where they were? Germany would have ended up as the “pre-eminent power in Europe” as it inarguably is today. And of course without the additional and brutal devastation laid on the German people by the extraordinarily punitive Treaty of Versailles, there would have been no World War Two.
And what about the mid-East, today a vat of searing hatred and violence? With the destruction of the Ottoman Empire, the West eagerly and arbitrarily sliced up the region with new border lines without the slightest regard for domestic realities. Would anyone disagree that the price we pay for imposition of the Sykes Picot Line randomly drawn by two low level bureaucrats is unacceptably high? In recent months I saw a video of ISIS forces proudly bulldozing through the Sykes Picot Line. Even today’s war in Syria traces back to 1919’s arbitrary impositions.
The British aggressively created a Homeland for the Jews in Palestine with an eye to expansion of their power. And hasn’t that worked out well. The false nation of Iraq was created then by the big powers. Talk about world war one never ending. Part of the overall problem was empires dictating solutions with no regard for people actually living in the many regions. T.E. Lawrence was one of the few to figure that out.
And what of the tipping point for the US: the notorious Zimmerman Telegram, also the result of a low level bureaucrat? What about President Wilson’s provocation of Mexico with his attack on Vera Cruz?
The armistice of 1918 was not at all the end of it. It was merely the start of a long weekend until it all started up again. Nothing was settled by the first world war. Millions of lives were lost, while nothing was gained. April 6, 1917, the day congress declared war on Germany was a day of unspeakable truly insane tragedy. As the last British soldier from that war said before he passed away, “It wasn’t worth a single life.”